Kenya Smith, NTIA - Spotlight on Dept. of Commerce African American Veterans

The 2018 Black History Month theme, “African Americans in Times of War,” provides the framework for many stories related to African American soldiers, sailors, marines, airmen, veterans, and civilians. This video series, created by the DOC Office of Civil Rights, showcases the diverse stories of some African Americans who served during times of war and now work for the Department of Commerce Headquarters in downtown Washington, DC.

  • I am Kenya Smith. I am the Chief Learning Officer for NTIA.

    I was member of the United States Navy and I joined first in February 1991 and I enlisted as a corpsman. I served for 7 years and got out. I missed it so much, I came back in and by then I was an officer. I came back in in December 2003 as a Naval Officer.

    Why did I join the military? I wanted to do something different.

    First and foremost, I’m a military brat, both my parents were in the Army, Army officers and I wanted something a little bit different. I didn’t want a regular 9 to 5 job. I wanted something with adventure and a neighbor of mine was a Navy recruiter. And one day we just sat and talked and he had me sold by the end…I was in the Navy.

    I was in medical field. I was a medical corpsman and I worked in a hospital. I worked on a ward mostly attending to surgical patients, and then the second time around, I was medical service corps officer. I was a health administrator. And for the most part I did various jobs under that.

    But I was the officer in charge of the medical clinic at Camp Lejeune, and then I deployed to Iraq, as a supply logistics officer with the 2nd Medical Battalion. I was in operation Iraqi Freedom and I deployed February 2005 and I was in Al-Asad Iraq, near the southern border next to Syria. We were right outside Syria.

    While I was deployed, I ran the day to day operations of the surgical unit, so I was responsible for the staff of 240 people and responsible for pretty much everything from logistics to supplies. But most importantly part of my duties was I was in mortuary affairs, I did mortuary services. I was responsible for medevacing the deceased patients back to the United States.

    And one of my duties was, as we called them angels when they came in, I had to examine the bodies and complete their death certificates. And I had to search their bodies for their belongings, and inventory that, and then I had to put them in the…in their body bag and then I would put a marine on the door to guard the body while we waited for the morgue to come and pick them up. So that was one of my duties, mortuary services.

    My wartime experience impacted me significantly. First and foremost, it made me realize that life is short. I found resilience in being over there because you learned to adapt and overcome to your environment. You learned what you are seeing--it makes you think differently about life and how short life can be.

    It greatly impacted my children especially, they were 7 and 8 at the time I deployed. And their father, who was my husband at the time, he was in Guantanamo Bay, with the detainees, so both their parents were gone at the same time, and it was a world they were never used to because I was a stay-at-home mom and the next thing you know I’m at work at war. My daughter fell into a deep depression and my son developed anger issues. My mom had to do a Red Cross message to bring me back…the psychiatrist had suggested putting her on Prozac. A 7-year-old should not be on Prozac. I did 7…I did 5 months out of a 7-month tour and then I came back to the States and had to deal with getting my children readjusted.

    First and foremost, I had to be grateful for the fact that I returned and returned all together. I put seven bodies in bags, that’s seven families that will not be seeing their relatives again. So first and foremost, thankful. Then a lot of readjustment and reassuring especially for the children that it was just a job, it’s over, done with and I won’t be doing that again and working with them. But we did have to go to family therapy for a while, extensively for both of them to really adjust. My daughter had the hardest time because actually the week I returned home one of her classmates’ father was killed in Iraq and by them living on base, they knew, they were not hidden somewhere, they knew what was going on, they knew where I was. So partly just from then on, just being there for them. Being there for Brownie Troop meetings, and little league football, baseball. Just being there really helped.

    What I learned first about myself… Again, like I said, I’m fierce, I’m brave, I’m resilient. You learn to overcome. You learn to put things into perspective. For my family, what I learned is how important they are. And I call it the one-minute realization. One of the persons was killed just by one minute being off, and then one inch. One was hit an inch above his flak jacket and bled out. And that was the day when I had blood all over me from somebody else.

    So it makes you realize that one minute can make a difference, so that means just texting my mom, or my children to say “hey I’m here, I love you.” I just do that: calling my grandmother, who is 91, to say “hey I appreciate you.” That, and for my community, giving back. I started a non-profit organization for homeless veterans, and that was my way of giving back to the veteran population who is highly underserved now.

    My position at Commerce: I’m the Chief Learning Officer for NTIA and I came on board July of 2016. My military experience impacted me professionally by instilling in me assurance. A sense of awareness, of knowing that I can face challenges, difficult situations that arise, how to adapt and to overcome. Part of my duties, I was also a training officer, so that definitely correlates to what I do now here at Commerce. As company commander, you are always training and mentoring your folks and that’s what I do here. So I think that my greatest impact, the greatest impact that the military provided was, I think self-awareness and assurance. Being able to get things done. And take on more…it gave me the opportunity to grow more and take on more responsibility.

    Black History month means to me power, strength. It means remembering those that have come before. After watching the video we saw today, especially about the military, some of that I knew, most of it I did not. So what it means is that we’re capable, we’re able, and we should be highly recognized for that. That we have a skill set that can definitely teach others, and show others that we’re all the same. We can all do the same, given the same experiences and opportunities.